Saturday, August 6, 2011

Castagna [ two ]

I usually take a while to write about something I just ate, but with the proximity of the last Castagna post and the natural need to follow up on something so good, I had to throw in the one-two punch. I also usually don't write about the same place twice, just because there are too many places out there to eat at and write about. Finally, I usually don't write about two restaurants in a row, but this summer, things have been a little bit quiet in the kitchen. But not to worry. More chickens and more home-cooked goodness to come.

For now, let's leave it to the professionals. More specifically, let's leave it to Chef Matt Lightner and his awesome team of crazy good food-making professionals. Matt Lightner's last night at Castagna felt no different from the first night I experienced Castagna, and my reaction to his food wasn't any different either. One week later, the flavors still haunt me.

So, same deal. Two four-course meals, surprisingly affordable, just as worth it, but this time, I was with my good buddy, Kenny. Without skipping a beat, our meal started with another slew of snacks.

Look familiar? The same Dehydrated Buttermilk Puff with Herbed Aioli and Trout Roe. Just as unassuming as last time.

The nice thing about the puff this time was that the aioli and roe was neatly tucked away in the buttermilk puff. The sweet puff was light and clung to my teeth. The roe burst with briny flavor and the aioli was creamy, light, and flavorful. Just like last time. Still so great.

Next up on the pre-meal snack list, a Sesame Cookie with a Black Sesame Coating and Rose Hip Jam. When the crackers arrived, they looked like an intensely sweet and cool dark chocolate with a fruit jam. I was immediately surprised when I picked up the cracker. Gooey, slick, and almost as crude as oil. I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little worried.

When I put the cookie in my mouth, I was quickly reminded of why I had such a great time at Castagna last time. The cookie was salty and rich. The rose hip jam was aromatic and subtle. The black tar found its way to the corners of my mouth to create a welcome, lasting flavor profile. Initially, the cracker tasted like a traditional, Korean, black sesame cracker. There I was, munching away thinking I knew all about black sesame crackers. As the rose hip jam coated my tongue, a pleasant tartness found its way into the dense, black sesame flavor. As the collective flavor reached the end of its lifespan, I tasted a unique, staccato note of black sesame that I had never tasted before. The quick, surprising burst of unfamiliar flavor left me confused, awake, and craving more. This was exactly the same feeling I got when I had the purple carrot leather last time. What a trip.

Snack number three was a Rye Cracker with Chicken Liver Mousse and Poppy Seeds. The star of this bite was the mousse. Smooth, creamy, dense, slightly cool, and flavorful. The mousse was only accented by its seedy neighbors. The cracker cracked, the poppy popped, and the mousse...moussey? Anyways, it was delicious.

The Bread Plate rang with familiarity from my first visit. Even so, things were slightly altered this time around. The bread was a housemade rye roll this time. But just like the last set of buns, these had a great crispy and cheesy character to them. They weren't quite as oily this time, but still good.

Next to it was a familiar side of Smoked Pork Fat with Sunflower Seeds and Herbs. I liked the fat better this time. It was smokier and there was a very present taste of fennel. The texture of the fat was a lot smoother and creamier this time, which was a great way to balance out the less oily bread. The fat also really helped the rye flavors come out from the bread.

Next to the bread plate sat a familiar stone with butter on top. The butter this time was a House-Churned Butter with a Brown Butter Solid, instead of brown sugar. Though I loved the simple combination of brown sugar and butter from last time, the brown butter solid wins, hands down. The overall effect was a creamy, sweet butter with strong hints of what tasted like salted caramel. I loved the way this butter really showcased the range and depth of such a simple and familiar ingredient.

Things were looking good, and once snack time was over, things only got better.

The first dish of the first course was Favas (with spot prawns, flowers, and geranium). When the plate came out, I could immediately smell the deep, aromatic, toasted shrimp broth. The fava beans were perfectly toothsome and the fresh, spot prawns were cool and refreshing. The flowers added a beautiful color to the plate and added a light, floral flavor that went surprisingly well with the broth.

Our other first was a Crab (with mascarpone, seeds, juice of celery, and lemon balm). In stark contrast with the previous shrimp broth, the dill and celery broth was light and herbal, but just as aromatic. The lemon balm and mascarpone circlets were absolutely addictive.

The crab, as expected, was insanely fresh and sat on a base of that same brown butter solid from before. The effect was intoxicating. The rich combination of the brown butter and crab struck a perfect balance with the cool broth and acidic lemon balm medallions.

Our first second course was a Ground Anemone (with pine nut gravy, morels, rabbit sausage, and spinach). The pine nut gravy was rich and surprisingly umami, the rabbit sausage was just the right amount of gamey, the morels (Lord knows how much I love morels) added a great earthiness, the anemone added a barely noticeable lightness, and the spinach grounded the whole dish in something more familiar.

Despite all the technique-driven components, this dish was extremely comforting and heartwarming.

The second second was easily the best of the night: Summer Squash (with beef marrow, tongue, and onion blossom). The summer squash came out like a creamy risotto, the bone marrow was rich and plump, the crispy and stringy beef tongue was outrageously delicious and added some great texture, and the light, squash jus tied everything together with a perfect knot. One, huge bucket of that crispy beef tongue to go, please. The right bite with every single component was heaven and each bite hugged me with depth and warmth. Just thinking about this dish is making my stomach grumble and my mouth salivate. So, so good.

For our first main, we had a Lamb Collar (with wheat berries, wheat grass, and buttermilk). When I saw the word "buttermilk" on the menu, I had to order this. My memory of the buttermilk froth from last time was beyond memorable. The buttermilk this time was smoked, and I love myself a smokey dish or drink. This dish was no different. The lamb was cooked perfectly, and the glaze on the meat managed to counteract what would normally be very gamey.

The side of wheat berries were toothsome and the wheatgrass added a beautiful, pastoral element to the dish. A properly constructed mouthful of this course stirred some serious nostalgia for a farm I wish I grew up on. Surprisingly emotional, absurdly delicious.

Come to think of it, the previous two dishes, and the next dish, all had that effect on me. With each bite, these dishes truly made me appreciate the entire process behind getting the food to these plates. The lamb and the squash dishes literally made my eyes well up a little.

Our last savory course of the night was a Pork Roast (with scallions, yeast, and pine nuts). The pork was cooked to a beautiful medium rare, the scallions were perfectly grilled, and the duo of yeast and pine nut sauces brought some sweet, nutty, and tart flavors to the pork. The yeast really brought out that pastoral element that I was talking about earlier.

The crispy ends of the scallions were entirely addictive. How can I arrange for a bucket of these scallion ends mixed with the crispy beef tongue? Because I would love that. Right now. Best snack ever.

And with that, the savory portion of the night ended.

More so than last time, the night's desserts were some of the best I've ever had. First was a Wild Ginger (with long pepper, ginger shortbread, and herbs). This pile of goodies was awesome. I could eat each component of this dish on its own for days on end. The wild ginger meringue cubes were light, airy, and crispy, the thin ginger shortbread wafers were crispy and flavorful, the dill did its job in adding a nice herbal touch to the dish, and the long pepper marshmallows were fluffy and had just the slightest kick. The ridiculous combination of textures and flavors in this dessert was breathtaking. One humungous tub of this dessert to go, please.

The last dessert was also one of my favorites of the night: Sherbet (with lemon pulp, wild flower meringue, and crocus sativus). Okay, okay, saying "crocus sativus" instead of "saffron" is a little bit ridiculous, but you know what? This dessert was ridiculous. So Matt Lightner gets to call this dessert what the heck he wants to call it. The wild flower meringue was super light and airy. Each bit of the meringue melted immediately and coated my tongue with floral subtlety. The lemon pulp curd was creamy, smooth, and deliciously sour. The nitrogen bits of sherbet were cool and reminiscent of a more delicate form of Dippin' Dots. Meanwhile, the quenelle of saffron ice cream was doing a great job at centering the whole dish. This dessert was all about taking a bite and letting every flavor blend seamlessly into one another. This one also made my eyes well up with absolute bliss. So freaking awesome.

The night came to a close again with two Hazelnut Pralines Rolled in Chocolate. Just as delicious as last time and just sweet enough to kiss the diners good night.

All in all, I left Castagna feeling the same exact way as last time: intoxicatingly happy and outrageously pissed.

With most multiple-course meetings, there's always something mediocre in the mix. With four four-course meals under my belt at Castagna, I have yet to encounter that plate of mediocrity. Both times I've been Castagna, I've left with an absurd high, leaving with a spring in my step and a lull in my everyday reasoning.

The first time I left Castagna, I was pissed because I knew I wouldn't be able to eat at Castagna every single night of my life. One, they're not open on Sundays, Mondays, or Tuesdays. Two, I live in Seattle. Three, I'm a law student. There are only so many loans I can take out. Four, I'm not insane.

This time, I was pissed because I knew that I'd have to go all the way to New York freaking City to eat Matt Lightner's food again. I had fewer reasons, but I was more pissed the second time. Shoot, I still am.

With Matt Lightner gone, many diners will probably not even turn their heads for Castagna. But in some ways, I'm actually very excited to see how the new head chef, Justin Woodward, will fare in his new position. He was Matt Lightner's backbone through all of his accolades and press, so I have no doubt that I'll be back to Castagna within the next year and I'm sure a "Castagna [ three ]" post will find its way into this blog.


1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd

Portland, OR 97214

(503) 231-7373

GET: Multiple sets of the four-course dinner.


  1. I want it! Also, I am giggling as I see you sitting there, munching away, thinking you know all about black sesame crackers.

  2. Kenny!

    Also, wow...I should probably get to Castagna.

  3. Shoutout to Kenny!


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